Islamic History Podcast 3-1: Syria And Iraq

Islamic History Podcast 3-1: Syria And Iraq

Kufah and the Khawarij

Muawiyyah had never faced an enemy like this before.

As his armies approached Kufah in Iraq, he received word a new rebellion had sprung from within the city. But these rebels were not devoted to Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muawiyyah’s former nemesis.

These were the Khawarij who opposed both Muawiyyah and Ali.

Muawiyyah expected some resistance when he came to occupy Kufah. The city had been Ali’s headquarters for almost four years.

Even as his armies closed in on Iraq in the last few months of Ali’s life, Muawiyyah knew taking the city would not be easy. Everyone expected a long, bloody struggle if Muawiyyah invaded Kufah.

But then, Ali was assassinated by one of the Khawarij.

After Ali’s death, his son Hassan became the Caliph. But Hassan had no desire to continue his father’s war with Muawiyyah. And he did not trust the Iraqis.

Hassan did the wise thing. He secured safe passage for himself and his family, gave up his claim to the Caliphate to Muawiyyah, and retired to Medina, the city of his birth.

Now it was Muawiyyah’s turn to deal with the madness in Iraq.

Muawiyyah’s capital, Damascus, was free of the scourge of the Khawarij, and he never had to fight them. In fact, much of his success was because of the stability in Syria.

Before the Muslims finalized their conquest of Syria in the Battle of Yarmouk, it had long been a Roman province. Unlike the new Iraqi cities of Kufah and Basra, the Syrians were comfortable with a central government.

Nonetheless, Muawiyyah was aware of the Khawarij mischief in Kufah.

The Khawarij were a strange breed. Outwardly, they were pious Muslims, dedicated to a life of devotion and worship.

But they believed every Muslim who did not agree with them were Munafiqun, or traitors to the faith. And they believed slaying the Munafiqun was a sacred duty.

The Khawarij were much more complicated than Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Muawiyyah and Ali’s conflict began with the murder of the third Righteous Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan. Muawiyyah and Uthman were cousins and both belonged to the powerful Umayyah clan of Mecca.

Ali assumed the Caliphate after Uthman’s murder and insisted the Muslim elite give him bay’ah, or the pledge of allegiance.

Most of the them reluctantly complied.

But some, like Muawiyyah, resisted.

At the time of Uthman’s death, Muawiyyah was the governor of Syria. He refused to give Ali the bay’ah until his cousin’s murder was avenged.

As the months passed and tensions escalated, both sides prepared for war. Muawiyyah was furious that many of Uthman’s opponents had attained high positions in Ali’s administration.

And Ali refused to find Uthman’s killers until Muawiyyah swore allegiance to him.

Ali started out with much more territory and men than Muawiyyah. But Ali had many things going against him and made several mistakes.

His biggest mistake was going to war against Aisha, the Prophet’s widow, at the Battle of the Camel. Though he defeated Aisha, Ali’s reputation and support suffered immensely.

After the Battle of the Camel, Ali changed his capital from Medina to Kufah. He clashed with Muawiyyah for the first time at the Battle of Siffin in Syria.

Muawiyyah was close to losing when his trusted advisor, Amr ibn Al-As, negotiated a ceasefire.

In the terms of the ceasefire, Ali and Muawiyyah agreed to have two men arbitrate and decide how best to resolve the conflict. Many of Ali’s followers opposed this idea.

Those that opposed arbitration separated from Ali, declaring both he and Muawiyyah were Munafiqun, traitors to the faith. They vowed to destroy the corrupt Muslim leadership and establish a new era of righteous Islamic rule.

These Khawarij, as they came to be known, put Ali in a difficult spot. He was reluctant to fight against them as they used to be his own soldiers.

Yet, they posed an imminent threat forcing Ali to deal with both an external and an internal enemy.

But eventually their actions grew so bold and outrageous, Ali had no choice but to engage them in battle.

Ali fought the Khawarij at the Battle of Nahrawan and nearly wiped them out. He destroyed all but nine of them, but those nine would be enough.

The nine survivors escaped the battlefield and hatched a plot to kill Muawiyyah, Ali, and Amr ibn Al-as at the same time.

Muawiyyah and Amr ibn Al-As escaped the Khawarij plot. But Ali was not so lucky.

Ali’s death cleared the way for Muawiyyah to negotiate directly with his son, Hassan ibn Ali. Hassan abdicated, and now Muawiyyah was moving in to occupy Kufah.

But the Khawarij posed a problem for Muawiyyah as well.

Politically and militarily, he had to occupy Kufah. He had to establish his authority over Ali’s former stronghold.

However, he wanted to avoid as much violence as possible. He did not want to antagonize Ali’s city any more than necessary.

So, he sent a single cavalry after the Khawarij hoping that would be enough to vanquish their threat.

But like many others, Muawiyyah underestimated the Khawarij. He was stunned and disgusted when the Khawarij defeated and nearly wiped out his cavalry.

No wonder Ali lost and Hassan capitulated. No leader could be successful with such stubborn people in their midst.

Muawiyyah was not about to risk anymore of his soldiers on this debacle. He had a better idea.

He sent a message to the chiefs of Kufah. The Khawarij are from your people, he told them, and your responsibility. Deal with them, or I will unleash my armies on Kufah, and I make no guarantees for your safety.

Without Ali or Hassan to lead them, the Kufans knew they didn’t stand a chance against Muawiyyah. They begged the Khawarij to lay down their arms and rejoin the city.

When that didn’t work, the chiefs organized an army and went out to meet the Khawarij on the battlefield. Many of the Khawarij, surprised their own people turned against them, gave up and returned to their homes.

Those that remained, were destroyed.

Mughirah ibn Shuba

Muawiyyah would need a skilled hand to govern Kufah. He wanted someone capable like Amr ibn Al-As, the governor of Egypt. Since Amr wasn’t available, he chose the next best thing.

Muawiyyah tapped Amr’s son Abdullah ibn Amr to be his first governor of Kufah. And Muawiyyah would have been satisfied with this had he not been approached by Mughirah ibn Shuba.

Like Muawiyyah, Amr, and Ali, Mughirah ibn Shuba was a Sahaba, or companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He was from the town of Taif about 40 miles east of Mecca and had accepted Islam after the Prophet migrated to Medina.

Mughirah was a tall man with one eye. He’d lost the other in the Battle of Yarmouk in Syria during the reign of the second Caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattab.

Mughirah ibn Shuba remained neutral during the conflict between Ali and Muawiyyah. He did not take part in any of the battles and played a neutral role during the arbitration.

But now that the hostilities were over, Mughirah hoped to attain some position with Muawiyyah. When he learned that Muawiyyah had chosen Amr ibn Al-As’ son as governor of Kufah, he saw an opportunity.

“You’ve put yourself between the jaws of a lion,” he told Muawiyyah when the two met in Damascus. “Syria is between the father in Egypt and the son in Iraq.”

Even though Muawiyyah trusted Amr, he understood the potential danger and knew the extents men would go to for power. He immediately deposed Amr’s son and named Mughirah as governor instead.

When Amr learned of this, he met with Muawiyyah and convinced him to at least put a check on Mughirah. If left alone, he said, Mughirah would empty Kufah of its entire treasury.

In order to appease Amr ibn Al-As, and limit Mughirah’s power in Kufah, Muawiyyah made Amr’s son the finance minister of Kufah. Not surprisingly, Mughirah sulked at this, but could do nothing.

Muawiyyah’s Government

The empire was united under Muawiyyah’s rule, but there was still a lot of division. Though the Arab Muslims were the rulers, they were a minority in most areas.

This was most evident in Syria, Muawiyyah’s stronghold. The province known as Syria was not limited to the republic we know today. The region called Ash-Sham, the Arabic word for Syria, included modern day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and even parts of Saudi Arabia.

During Muawiyyah’s reign, Syria was divided into four smaller districts:

  • Palestine
  • Jordan
  • Damascus
  • Homs

Each of these smaller districts had a governor answerable directly to Muawiyyah. These sub-governors were responsible for collecting the tax revenue and sending it to Damascus.

Outside of Syria, taxation policies were very inconsistent. It was up to the local administration to establish and manage their finances. As such, some provinces did much better than others, depending on the governor in office.

Wealth did not flow from the outer provinces into Syria to be redistributed at Muawiyyah’s whim. All of the tax revenue of Syria, originated in Syria.

Most Syrians at this time were still Christian. It would take generations for the Muslims to become a majority, and even today, there are still large pockets of Christians and Jews living there.

Despite the potential conflict of a Muslim minority ruling over a Christian majority, there were very few religious clashes in Syria during Muawiyyah’s reign.

His jizyah, or non-Muslim tax, was reported to be modest and stable. Abiding by the injunctions of the Quran, he did not demolish churches or monasteries, and did not prevent public Christian worship. And there is evidence that new churches were built during his reign.

Some Christian sects that were persecuted by the Romans flourished under Muawiyyah. Monophysite and Nestorian Christians were finally able to worship openly and freely. And unlike the Romans, he did not resort to playing one group of Christians against another.

Muawiyyah even posted Muslim soldiers to guard Christians during their worship services.

The primary setback for Christianity during Muawiyyah’s reign was that they could no longer depend on government support. This was especially difficult for those Christian groups that aligned with the dominant Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople.

These Christians now had to depend more and more on private donations. And even this began to suffer as conversion to Islam increased over the years.

Another factor contributing to Syria’s success was Muawiyyah’s preference for diplomacy over force.

When he needed to convince a tribal leader to go along with him, Muawiyyah would invite him to his palace in Damascus. There, he would feed them, entertain them, and shower them with gifts.

He flattered them and offered to use his connections to help out with any problems they may have. In this way, Muawiyyah won the trust of the Syrian nobility.

Some Christian contemporaries described Muawiyyah in glowing terms, saying he was the first among equals. He was not ostentatious, did not wear a crown, and built no monuments in his name.

Unlike his successors, Muawiyyah was essentially a child of the desert. He was born in Mecca and had witnessed the rise of the Arabs over the years.

Even though his father, Abu Sufyan, had once been a bitter enemy of Prophet Muhammad, Muawiyyah saw first-hand the power of Islam. He saw the rise of the religion from its humble beginnings as a persecuted minority in Mecca, to the ruling force over millions of people across three continents.

He knew much of the strength of Islam lay in those simple desert roots. And that was how he preferred to govern the empire.

Simple. Straightforward. Uncomplicated.

As such, his administration was not very sophisticated.

The empire was divided into five large provinces:

  • Syria, which included Jordan and Palestine
  • Egypt, which included North Africa
  • Basra, which included most of southeastern Persia
  • Kufah, which included most of Iraq and central Asia
  • The Hijaz, which included the Arabian Peninsula.

Each region was further divided into smaller districts. Most of his governors had sub-governors ruling these smaller districts.

But these boundaries were not fixed. Administrative regions shifted depending on Muawiyyah’s preference and the needs of the moment. Sometimes he combined two large regions under one governor. Other times, he split a large region between multiple governors.

Mughirah in Kufah

Much like the Muslim Empire, Kufah was a divided city when Mughirah ibn Shubah became governor.

Show Notes

Support the Islamic History Podcast on Patreon

Subscribe to the Islamic History Podcast on iTunes

Follow me on Twitter for Islamic History video clips

Friend me on Facebook to catch the next live recording

Learn amazing Islamic History Facts on Instagram

Podcast of the week: The Mad Mamluks Podcast

Links related to this episode

2-19: Camel and Kharijites

2-17: Murder and Chaos

Spread the word

Leave a Reply